A terrible injustice continues in Myanmar, a land that held such bright promise of democracy when Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize and the grip of the generals seemed to have eased, bringing hope to its beleaguered people.
Tragically however, the end of military oppression has seen a resurgence of old prejudices and nationalist fervor, leading to ethnic violence in a land assumed to be dominated by Buddhist values of calm, wisdom and tolerance. The Western world should be appalled at the continued silence from its leaders as women and children are being killed and hundreds of thousands of people are being driven from their homes and businesses, forced to become refugees in unwelcoming countries that don't want to give them refuge.
The Rohingya people in the Western Myanmar state of Rakine have been persecuted for decades. They are stateless, ethnic Muslims, numbering more than 800,000, who have lived in Myanmar for over one hundred years without any civil rights or representation in government. Their continued persecution is a national shame as well as a human tragedy and it is time that President Thein Sein and other political leaders put an end to the violence.
Declaring a state of emergency and imposing martial law has uncomfortable echoes of the past repressive regime. It would be much better if the government were to recognize all the different ethnic groups in Myanmar and give them the stability of basic civil rights. Redress through the law would heal a lot of the tensions between Buddhists and Muslims and stop the despicable practice of marginalizing people as non-citizens.
The U.S. has been reluctant to acknowledge the failings of Myanmar leadership and must be concerned that the country risks backsliding toward military rule that ended two years ago. Human rights groups and a U.N. envoy have criticized the Myanmar government's failure to prevent attacks mostly on minority Muslims by majority Buddhists. As news filters out to the outside world of further atrocities, some media representatives are talking about genocide, not just "ethnic clashes."
"If the new government and opposition can't fashion an effective response to this violence that brings justice and accountability, then it seems likely the violence will escalate," said Frank Jannuzi, deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA.
The Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has urged an end to the violence, calling on the Myanmar government to protect the lives of innocent civilians. Islamic countries have the issue on their agenda and are calling for international diplomatic efforts to address the issue of Myanmar refugees and other repressed Muslims. The opportunity exists for the Muslim world to stand up for their repressed brothers and use its collective strength to bring about a peaceful resolution. For a start, they could help finance a relief operation for the refugees living in appalling conditions in Bangladesh camps which have been likened to concentration camps.
The London-based Burma Campaign UK has criticized pro-democracy activists in Myanmar for failing the Rohingya, "the world's most persecuted minority" according to the UN, by not speaking out on their behalf. Aung San Suu Kyi who is renowned for her steadfast criticism of human rights abuses inside the country, has inexplicably avoided questions about the Rohingya situation and has not spoken out on it yet, apart from deploring the violence.
With the OIC calling on the UN to follow up their allegations of ethnic cleansing, the Burmese leadership is vulnerable to charges of "crimes against humanity." Muslims the world over will feel a chill of recognition as they are reminded of the slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia, when the UN and the U.S. likewise deplored the violence but waited an unconscionable length of time before using their powers to defend human rights and put an end to the genocide.
The humanitarian catastrophe in Myanmar calls out for international intervention to save the Rohingya people of western Myanmar, whose very existence as a people is being denied.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of The Scotland Institute and Fellow a the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding